Narrative Structure

The structure of narrative can contain several elements, from the basic structure where the hero ventures from the confines of the village, faces a threat from a villain and returns home, restoring the land to equilibrium, this is known as three arc structure, setup, confrontation and resolution.  Over the progression of the acts, the tension of the story builds up through a series of crisis’ until the conclusion

In longer running narratives, particularly comic books and games, side plots are often encountered.  These can add important information to a character’s history and why the world in which they live in is the way it is.

In TV and episodic narrative, there may be an overarching story that connects the particular season for example, whereas each episode is its own self-contained narrative.  Russian scholar Vladimir Propp extended the Russian formalist approach to narrative structure in the examination of fairy tales into 31 separate functions.  This breaks down the events of the three arc structure into its common elements, however his theory does not hold up when it fails to note the importance of tone, mood, characterisation and style, these elements need to be considered to create a good narrative.  This means that the way a story is told is just as important as the order of the content.

The 31 functions, noted by Jerry Everard’s Introduction to Vladimir Propp are as follows…

1. A member of a family leaves home (the hero is introduced);

This provides the setting for the story and introduces the audience to the character, this is where we get our initial gauging of them.  Like meeting a person for the first time, this allows us to create our first impressions.

2. An interdiction is addressed to the hero (‘don’t go there’, ‘go to this place’);

At this point, the tension starts to increase, we are still at a point of normality, but this event creates curiosity, what will happen if the hero goes to this place?  This is the first hint at the path we will be following the character down.  This function warns us that bad things will happen if the character does a particular thing, so by the time they reach the event of going to the forbidden place, we have already begun guessing as to what the consequences will be.

3. The interdiction is violated (villain enters the tale);

As with the first function, this is the event where we can make our first impressions of the villain, and learn their motivations in the story.

4.The villain makes an attempt at reconnaissance (either villain tries to find the children/jewels etc; or intended victim questions the villain);

This may provide us with the reasoning as to why there is a vendetta towards the hero, this is the point where their fates become intertwined.

5. The villain gains information about the victim;

To increase the tension a little more, the villain may gain some leverage over the hero, another aspect of this may add a more cathartic value when the hero overcomes the villain, despite them knowing the hero’s weakness.

6. The villain attempts to deceive the victim to take possession of victim or victim’s belongings (trickery; villain disguised, tries to win confidence of victim);

7. Victim taken in by deception, unwittingly helping the enemy;

8. Villain causes harm/injury to family member (by abduction, theft of magical agent, spoiling crops, plunders in other forms, causes a disappearance, expels someone, casts spell on someone, substitutes child etc, comits murder, imprisons/detains someone, threatens forced marriage, provides nightly torments); Alternatively, a member of family lacks something or desires something (magical potion etc);

This kind of event directly forces the hero to act against the villain.  The hero must protect and save their loved ones and this forces them to take action.

9. Misfortune or lack is made known, (hero is dispatched, hears call for help etc/ alternative is that victimised hero is sent away, freed from imprisonment);

10.  Seeker agrees to, or decides upon counter-action;

11.  Hero leaves home;

This event is significant because the hero is leaving his familiar environment and at this point, they have the same knowledge as the reader and we are now learning at the same rate.  In myth particularly, when the hero journeys to confront the gods, they travel through mythical places like into the underworld, places that are completely alien to us and these stories often justify the existence of it.

12.  Hero is tested, interrogated, attacked etc, preparing the way for his/her receiving magical agent or helper (donor);

13.  Hero reacts to actions of future donor (withstands/fails the test, frees captive, reconciles disputants, performs service, uses adversary’s powers against them);

These preceding event adds to the drama and tests the hero’s abilities, setting a baseline standard for their abilities, physical strength, cunning etc…

14.  Hero acquires use of a magical agent (directly transferred, located, purchased, prepared, spontaneously appears, eaten/drunk, help offered by other characters);

15.  Hero is transferred, delivered or led to whereabouts of an object of the search;

These events are usually the key to tipping the balance of power into the hero’s favour, without this item it may have been impossible to defeat their foe.

16.  Hero and villain join in direct combat;

The start of the climax of the story; where all the tension has been leading towards.

17.  Hero is branded (wounded/marked, receives ring or scarf);

The hero and the villain are equally significant characters, and have strong opposing character traits, by the hero getting injured, he is forever linked to their opponent.  If the hero eventually dies of his injuries, there can also be a cathartic element, this can be a mirror of religious stories, where the hero dies for the greater good, they give their life for their loved ones to live.

18.  Villain is defeated (killed in combat, defeated in contest, killed while asleep, banished);

19.  Initial misfortune or lack is resolved (object of search distributed, spell broken, slain person revivied, captive freed);

This is the climax of the story, good conquers evil and there is often a cathartic release, the story is resolved and the world can return to equilibrium.

20.  Hero returns;

Now the hero can return to their home now that the situation has been resolved.  There may also be some emphasis of the character’s growth, they have embarked on a journey and managed to overcome evil, and we have also journeyed with them, we have also probably learned something as well along with them.

21.  Hero is pursued (pursuer tries to kill, eat, undermine the hero);

22.  Hero is rescued from pursuit (obstacles delay pursuer, hero hides or is hidden, hero transforms unrecognisably, hero saved from attempt on his/her life);

23.  Hero unrecognised, arrives home or in another country;

24.  False hero presents unfounded claims;

25.  Difficult task proposed to the hero (trial by ordeal, riddles, test of strength/endurance, other tasks);

26.  Task is resolved;

A slight hiccup in the story reminds us that, sometimes, even for heroes, some things don’t always go to plan, and that others may always be willing to take credit for the work we do.  If the story were to just be plain sailing, it would be boring, a secondary event raises the tension again and keeps the audience interested, wanting to find out how the false hero is exposed or how they will win over the test they have been set.

27.  Hero is recognised (by mark, brand, or thing given to him/her);

Many people say everything happens for a reason, and towards the end of the story the loose threads start to come together, when the hero is recognised for their achievements, there is a satisfaction that good deeds will be rewarded, and although the hero has faced adversity, they have won in the end.

28.  False hero or villain is exposed;

29.  Hero is given a new appearance (is made whole, handsome, new garments etc);

30.  Villain is punished;

As mentioned previously, a lot of stories are told to reinforce moral values of society, this function restores the equilibrium and reinforces that no bad deed goes unpunished.

31.  Hero marries and ascends the throne (is rewarded/promoted).

Now that all wrongs have been put right, the reward that the hero receives is yet another climax to the story, this ending is also cathartic, as it makes the reader feel happier knowing that the journey they have been on with the character has gained the ultimate reward that they have set out for, and that the world is a better place because of them.

According to Propp, any of these functions can be combined in order to create a comprehensive narrative.

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